The Wolverton Bible - Foreword: "A Shot in the Liver, A Shot to the Soul" by Grant Geissman
Written by Grant Geissman   
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The Wolverton Bible [Sold Out]
The Wolverton Bible [Sold Out]
Price: $24.99

here are legions of fans of the work of Basil Wolverton, stretching across many generations. There are admirers of his earliest work in the comic books, including “Spacehawk” (which began to appear in 1940 in Target Comics) and “Powerhouse Pepper,” the wacky, off-the-wall humor feature Wolverton created in 1942 for Stan Lee’s Timely Comics.

Powerhouse Pepper by Basil Wolverton

There are fans of “Lena the Hyena, the ugliest woman in Lower Slobovia,” the crazily hideous image that was Wolverton’s winning entry in the 1946 contest United Features sponsored on behalf of Al Capp’s “Li’l Abner” strip.

There are enthusiasts of Wolverton’s numerous 1940s caricatures of popular celebrities, done for ad campaigns sponsored by assorted movie studios, the NBC radio network, and for various advertising agencies.

There are fanatics about his iconic (and, for the time, almost disturbing) 1950s work for Harvey Kurtzman’s comic-book version of MAD.

There are devotees of Wolverton’s nutty 1960s artwork done for Topps Chewing Gum, images that appeared on numerous bubble gum stickers, posters, and pinback buttons.

There are aficionados of the many 1970s-era covers he did for the DC comic book Plop!, as well as the work Wolverton did in the 1970s for the Al Feldstein-edited version of MAD magazine.

And there are his younger fans, who rediscover Wolverton’s work again and again, and select their own newfound favorites from the many reprint publications and lavish published tributes to Wolverton’s work that have since appeared.

Lena the Hyena

But it will surely come as quite a surprise to many of these same fans that Wolverton actually wanted the work contained in this volume, from his Bible stories, to be what he is “best remembered for.”

Wolverton was quite a unique artist, and not only because of his drawing style, which Life magazine once famously described as the “spaghetti and meatball school of design.” Unlike virtually all of his fellow comic-book contemporaries, Wolverton did not live in the greater Manhattan area, but rather resided in the Pacific Northwest and relied on the U.S. mail to deliver his many assignments. “no one else lived as far away as I did. Publishers liked to have artists under their thumbs at all times,” Wolverton told Dick Voll in the interview published in an all-Wolverton issue of Graphic Story Magazine (no. 14, Winter 1971-1972). “That had advantages for the artists,” Wolverton said, “but I would rather have forgone those things and have more freedom otherwise.” Like many other artists, Wolverton had no formal training, but unlike most other artists he never tried to ape the styles of other cartoonists, even the ones he admired. “Possibly it was a case of trying to keep my work from looking like that of others,” Wolverton has said. “Gradually I became aware that my way of drawing was different.”

Also unlike many comic-book artists, Wolverton considered himself to be primarily a comic artist, with no secret longing to break into the fine arts, do portrait painting, or escape the “comic-book ghetto” by going into advertising work. He loved the genre, with all of its perceived limitations.

Before becoming a cartoonist, Wolverton had actually started out as a young Vaudeville performer in theaters in Oregon and Washington. “Eventually I heard or read,” recalled Wolverton, “that a two-bit actor earns even less than a two-bit cartoonist.” Early in his career Wolverton also pitched several daily comic strips, but in spite of several near-misses nothing panned out. Perhaps it was just as well. Asked later what he felt more comfortable doing, Wolverton replied that “I felt more comfortable with comic book pages because of greater experience with them. I dislike repetition in drawing, and daily strips have to overlap somewhat.” And not doing a daily strip, Wolverton said, gave him “a certain freedom I wouldn’t have had.”

Quite contrary to what you might imagine the man to be like upon viewing what would be termed his “secular” artwork, Wolverton was a devout Christian, with rather conservative values. This fact is in sharp relief to his 1950s work for Kurtzman’s MAD, which is wonderfully grotesque at the very least; some even considered it to be phallic. (Of course, such observations often say more about the beholder than the artist.) It is true, however, that several panels from “Meet Miss Potgold” (MAD no. 17, November 1954) actually had to be retouched for fear that they were too sexually suggestive. “Sig Freud would probably go raving mad over my stuff,” Wolverton told Voll. “Some psychiatrist or editor said my material wasn’t fit to publish because it was rife with sex suggestions and symbols.” This both disgusted and amused Wolverton, who always claimed naiveté when it came to anything untoward in his work. “I know I draw things that look like all kinds of organs and glands,” Wolverton said. “It’s like the monkey which, if he pounded away for a million years, might accidentally type out the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ lyrics.”

Other Wolverton material in the early MAD also caused a fuss. For the cover of MAD no. 11 (May 1954), Kurtzman asked Wolverton to create “the Beautiful Girl of the Month” for a Life magazine cover parody. The resulting cover so horrified the powers that be at Life that they threatened legal action. To placate them, Bill Gaines had to send life a letter promising not to do it again (one of many such similar promises to various offendees that he broke in later years with subsequent articles in MAD). Apparently throwing caution to the wind, editor Al Feldstein also used stats of this art in several issues of Panic (MAD’s sister publication), most notably on the cover of issue no. 4 (August–September 1954).

MAD cover by Basil WolvertonPanic cover by Basil Wolverton

Wolverton continued to make infrequent appearances in MAD over the years. Wolverton said in Graphic Story Magazine that “having material published in MAD has always been like getting a shot in the liver.”

Writing and illustrating the stories of the Bible, then, must have seemed to Wolverton like getting a shot to the soul. Wolverton was not a serious illustrator who dabbled in comics, he was essentially a comic artist who took on the serious responsibility of illustrating the Bible. This proved to be quite a challenge. Of this work, Wolverton said “There is a definite story thread in the Bible, though to some readers it seems frayed and broken. I try to tie it solidly together, at the same time making events easier to understand, especially to youngsters.” Comparing this effort to working in the comics, Wolverton said “This is more difficult to do than humor. it requires research and study. The illustrations are not easy for me because of the struggle to prevent them from being too cartoony.” Easy or not, Wolverton’s meticulously-crafted images for The Bible story represent some of the most powerfully visceral Apocalyptic art — sacred or otherwise — ever put down on paper.

Herbert Armstrong circa 1952.
Herbert Armstrong circa 1952.

Herbert W. Armstrong, the charismatic founder of the Radio Church of God, wrote in the introduction to volume one of The Bible Story of his vision for the books, and of the inherent difficulty in getting it done properly. “In His own time,” Armstrong wrote, “God supplied the man for the job — a man equipped by natural talent, training, experience, and profession for this all-important mission. Basil Wolverton is a nationally known artist. Mr. Wolverton also is a trained writer, experienced through long years in writing for children.” He doesn’t mention that the work was done for the comic books. But Armstrong clearly had the right man for the job, because it’s difficult to gaze for very long upon Wolverton’s horrific end-of-the-world visions and not wonder if you really shouldn’t get right with Jesus.

Plop! cover by Basil Wolverton

Wolverton’s comic-book work had quite a profound effect on such underground cartoonists as Robert Crumb and Robert Williams, as well as on latter-day “alternative” artists like Charles Burns, Drew Friedman, and Peter Bagge. Macabre humorist/cartoonist Gahan Wilson once said in admiration that “no small child exposed to his drawings could ever be expected to walk in a straight line again, or vote a party ticket.” Such can be the power of art.

Wolverton never felt that he was slumming in the world of comics, and in fact was quite proud of his achievements in that genre, but he considered the work represented in this volume to be his most important. “In the overall body of material published,” Wolverton told Voll, “I prefer to be best remembered for The Story of Man. I feel that the [sacred] kind of work I’ve been doing in recent years is of greater value to others.”

In almost perfect summation, MAD creator/editor Harvey Kurtzman had this to say about Basil Wolverton: “For me, Wolverton always had an integrity of style and effort. Though never aesthetic, his style was always consistent, always pure Wolverton. He never borrowed, never hacked, and he never shortchanged the public. This is a good deal of the reason why he was what few of his contemporaries could claim: Wolverton was an original.”

Just how many of us can say that?

—G.G.

Basil Wolverton circa 1943.
Basil Wolverton circa 1943.

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